Is a stormwater utility finally in the cards?

Vero Beach leaders propose to establish a storm water utility to raise funds to better filter storm water runoff into the Lagoon.
Vero Beach leaders propose to establish a storm water utility to raise money to better filter polluted storm water runoff draining into the Lagoon.

Editor’s note: This story was first published Oct. 15, 2015.  On Jan. 10 of this year, in a joint meeting of the City’s Utilities and Finance Commissions, commission members voted 11-1 to recommend the City Council continue moving forward with forming a stormwater utility. The new utility, which would assess charges averaging $5 per month, is seen by many as the preferred means of establishing a dedicated source of funds for addressing stormwater runoff that is contributing to the Lagoon crisis. 

NEWS ANALYSIS

MILT THOMAS

The Vero Beach City Council has now taken the first steps in forming a stormwater utility. While that might not be the first thing on residents’ (and taxpayers’) minds, it ties in to the one subject on everyone’s mind, the future of our Indian River Lagoon.

This past summer has seen some drenching rains that have flooded streets, parking lots and in some cases, yards. If you are an ‘old-timer’ in Vero Beach, you remember when standing water was a common sight along with the waves of mosquitoes that came with it. Today, thanks to a complex system of ditches, pipes, retention ponds and canals, we only see standing water after major storms or series of storms. The problem is, most of that water eventually finds its way into the Indian River Lagoon, carrying with it fertilizer, pesticides, oil, soil, animal waste, leaves, grass clippings and other pollutants that have taken their toll on our fragile ecosystem.

Historically, funding for stormwater containment has come through taxes, but with technology comes the development of new methods to control the water-bearing pollutants. That technology comes with a price tag though and funding it can no longer rest on the ever-changing economics that affect tax revenues, including voters’ aversion to tax increases. Maintaining our system requires at least $700,000 a year and has been under-budgeted for some time. Meanwhile, the city’s drainage system is getting older and the cost of maintaining it or replacing it will have to be dealt with. A year ago, Mayor Richard Winger called for Vero Beach to follow the lead of Sebastian, Fellsmere and hundreds of other Florida cities in creating a stormwater utility. Finally, earlier this month, Council decided to act by hiring a consultant.

The question is how to set it up and fund it. Currently, most of the budget to address stormwater runoff comes from property taxes, which excludes renters, non-profits, schools and churches. A stormwater utility fee would be paid by all property owners, including those exempt from property taxes. According to Public Works Director, Monte Falls, “The main thing is to set up a funding mechanism that could pay for operations or for capital improvements. We have been paying for the operational side with ad valorem taxes while funds from the optional sales tax have gone to pay for the Dodgertown purchase, so we have not kept up with the needs. A utility authority would provide dedicated funds for capital improvements.”

To answer these questions, City Council has authorized a consulting firm, Collective Water Resources, LLC out of Lake Worth, to investigate the possibilities. According to City Manager, Jim O’Connor, “ They will evaluate techniques already in use, determine how it should be designed, how much it will cost and how it will be paid for, with a utility fee or on the tax bill. Then they will come back with their recommendations after a few months and Council will decide whether to do it and for what price to the community. Whichever way it is paid for, the utility will be designated for capital improvements only. The idea is to clean water going into the Lagoon.”

If the decision is to charge a fee, Falls says it would vary by homeowner. “Newer homes provide more onsite water treatment than older homes, which generate more runoff. The fee might be $3-$5 a month based on the amount with adjustments higher or lower.”

The typical Florida city charge about $6 per month.The idea of a stormwater authority is not new, even in Indian River County, according to Falls. “It’s been around for about 15 years in Sebastian, less in Fellsmere. All properties would benefit.”

And of course, the Lagoon will benefit most. However, opponents will say it is just an additional tax to create another layer of government. The question is whether the benefit to our community and the Lagoon will justify the cost – whatever you want to call it, a fee or a tax.

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